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2010

At first thought, embedded design teams might not think of Intel® Architecture (IA) processors as a match for rugged environments and extended-temperature operation. But Intel does support such applications with processors that are offered in the embedded program. Moreover board and module vendors offer the IA processors in a variety of rugged commercial-off-the-shelf platforms. Design teams can choose from ruggedized extensible modular form factors and miniature single-board computers. Moreover, the ruggedized ecosystem includes the latest in IA technology such as the Intel® Atom™ E6XX series that offers the highest level of integration and lowest-system power in the IA family.


There is a tremendous advantage in any application to turn to an IA processor. No other architecture enjoys the same broad support in terms of software and development tools. Moreover, no other architecture is fueled by a high-volume ecosystem that continually delivers best-in-class performance and low power while leveraging the production volume of the PC, server, and notebook segments to meet the cost requirements of a broad range of embedded applications.


Today, let’s discuss two extremes in terms of the type of platforms that might be useful in rugged or extended temperature applications. First we will consider the CompactPCI platform that takes a modular approach and has found broad usage in applications including industrial, aerospace, and military. Then we will examine the rich functionality available in miniature single-board computers (SBCs).


The CompactPCI standard is promulgated by the PICMG consortium that collaboratively develops open specifications for high-performance computing applications. The standard relies on the Eurocard format for 3U and 6U modular board that are 5.25 and 10.5 inches high. PICMG continually enhances technologies such as CompactPCI – for instance adding support for serial interfaces over the backplane with the CompactPCI PlusIO specification.


General Electric (GE) Intelligent Platforms* is one of many companies that support the Compact PCI standard, and that offers products that are optimized for reliability in rugged environments. Moreover, the company already offers a new product – the ACR301-- that is based on the Atom E6XX processor.

 

GE_ACR301_550.jpg

 

The E6XX processor integrates a graphics controller and a memory controller on chip. Moreover the processor chip and Intel® Platform Controller Hub EG20T companion IC offers incredible I/O support. If you want to read more about the new IA platform you might peruse these other recent Roving Reporter posts by Henry Davis and Kenton Williston.


GE notes the importance of high levels of integration in applications such as unmanned vehicles where space is at a premium. “While the very highest performance is still a requirement for many demanding embedded applications, this is increasingly being tempered by the need to deliver that performance in applications such as unmanned vehicles, where space, weight, power availability and the ability to dissipate heat are often highly constrained,” said Rob McKeel, General Manager, Military & Aerospace Embedded Computing at GE Intelligent Platforms. “The ACR301 is among the very first solutions to use Intel’s latest Atom processor to specifically address those requirements, and can make a vital contribution to our customers’ ability to attain sustainable competitive advantage.”


GE offers the ACR301 and other products in five levels of ruggedization. The levels address extended temperatures in the -40° to +85° range, a range of cooling options, and options that address vibration and shock. If you want more details see the Systems Ruggedization web page on the GE site.


At the other end of the spectrum, consider the Catalyst TC SBC from Eurotech**. The SBC is designed for fan-less operation and measures 67x100 mm. But the high level of integration in the E6XX design results in an SBC that is still able to handle HD video decoding and output. Eurotech is targeting applications including industrial, automotive, infotainment, and military with the SBC.


The compact design includes a rich set of I/O capabilities including SATA, Gigabit Ethernet, and CAN interfaces. Embedded teams can use operating systems ranging from Windows to Wind River*** Linux with the product.

 

Eurotech_CatalystTC.jpg

 

The Eurotech SCB is available in an extended temperature version that includes the -40° to +85° range favored for military and industrial applications. Eurotech offers the board with as much as 2 Gbytes of DDR2 memory. Moreover design teams can add functionality via PCI Express (PCIe) and SD-card interfaces.


Please share you experience with rugged environments via comments. Have you developed rugged systems with modular platforms such as CompactPCI? What challenges did you face? And what are the limitations or advantages you’ve experienced with the SBC approach? Fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community would appreciate your input.


 

Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

 

 

* General Electric Intelligent Platforms is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance

** Eurotech is an Associate Member of the Alliance

*** Wind River is an Associate Member of the Alliance

The new Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series offers a 2X boost in graphics performance over its predecessor, as well as improved HD video support.  These features are a boon for the many embedded applications where graphics and video performance are key requirements.   For example, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series can enable sophisticated human-machine interfaces (HMIs) in industrial automation applications, and its HD video can enable low-cost digital signage solutions.

 

Let’s start with a look at the processor’s graphics performance.  The Intel Atom processor E6xx series features the Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 600, a power-optimized 2D/3D graphics engine based on the PowerVR SGX 535 from Imagination Technologies.  The graphics engine can be clocked at up to 400 MHz, up from the 200 MHz clock used in the otherwise identical 2D/3D engine in the prior-generation GMA 500—hence the 2X boost in performance.  This speed bump was possible because the Intel Atom processor E6xx series integrates the GMA 600 onto the same 45 nm die as the CPU.  In contrast, the previous-generation Intel® Atom™ processor Z5xx series placed the graphics engine on the 130 nm Intel® SCH US15W chipset.

 

In addition to bringing the graphics onto the CPU, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series integrates the video and memory interfaces onto the processor, and boosts the memory speed from a maximum of 533 MHz to a maximum of 800 MHz.  It also replaces the proprietary 400 MHz/533 MHz front-side bus (FSB) chipset interface with a much faster 2500 MHz PCI Express* interface.  These upgrades significantly improve performance in applications where bandwidth is a performance bottleneck—a common scenario in graphics-intensive applications.

 

To illustrate how all these upgrades translate to real-world performance, Intel has demonstrated the GMA 600 running Quake 3 at above 100 fps.  Although this may not be the most relevant benchmark for embedded applications, it does demonstrate the solid performance of the graphics engine.   To get a more visceral sense of the GMA 600’s performance, check out the video below.  Note that this video features the Intel® Atom™ processor Z6xx series, formerly known as Moorestown.  This processor uses the same GMA 600 engine as the Intel Atom processor E6xx series.

 

 

This level of graphics performance is extremely helpful for creating intuitive, responsive user interfaces.  The GMA 600 supports OpenGL* ES 2.0, OpenGL 2.1, OpenVG 1.1, and DirectX 10.1, enabling a wide variety of graphic user interface (GUI) tools to leverage the graphics engine.  For example, the Nokia Qt GUI tools use OpenGL.   To learn more about the possibilities of GUI design with the Intel® Atom™ processor, I recommend the article Touch-Screen Automation, Simplified for a good overview.

 

Turning our attention to HD video, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series includes hardware-accelerated high-definition video decode for MPEG4, H.264, WMV and VC1, and—for the first time—encode for MPEG4 and H.264.  The decode side supports 1080p30 H.264 base, main, and high profile content at up to 20Mbps.  Meanwhile, the encoder can handle up to 720p30 H.264 base profile L3.  As with the 2D/3D pipeline, the HD video acceleration comes courtesy of Imagination Technologies—in this case via their PowerVR VXD decoder and PowerVR VXE encoder.

 

It is also worth noting that some graphics- and video-intensive applications have modest CPU performance requirements.   The Intel Atom processor E6xx series includes a new 600 MHz option that is a good fit for the applications. This entry-level option retains the powerful graphics and video capabilities of its piers (although the graphics clock is reduced to 320 MHz) but turns down the processor clock for a lower-power and lower-cost solution.  The Intel Atom processor E6xx series also includes 1.0 GHz, 1.3 GHz, and 1.6 MHz variants for applications that need more speed.

 

Of course, performance isn’t everything—embedded applications have other tough requirements such as fanless operation, ability to withstand harsh environments, and rapid time to market.  Developers can meet these requirements with boards and modules from the Intel® Embedded Alliance.    The PROFIVE* P11 nanoETXexpress module from E.E.P.D. GmbH illustrates the advantages of these solutions.  This 84 mm × 55 mm module includes:

 

  • COM Express* Type 1 or Type 10 pin out
  • -40°C to +85°C extended temperature version and 0°C to +60°C standard version
  • Processor speeds from 600 MHz to 1.6 GHz
  • Up to 1 GB DDR2
  • One Gigabit Ethernet port and up to 3 PCI Express lanes
  • Up to two SATA interfaces; optional SATA SSD of up to 4 GB
  • Up to six USB 2.0 ports and one USB Client port
  • Two optional COM ports and optional CAN port
  • SDVO and LVDS interfaces

 

The PROFIVE P11 targets a variety of applications with demanding graphics requirements, including digital signage, rugged industrial and mobile systems, medical equipment, and kiosks.  Using this module is a great way to get a head start on designs for these markets. Figure 1 shows the PROFIVE P11.

 

p11.jpg

Figure 1. At just 84 mm × 55 mm, the E.E.P.D. PROFIVE P11 is remarkably compact.

 

Another example comes from Lippert, which offers the Toucan-TC COM Express Compact module.  This 95 mm × 95 mm module includes:

 

  • Support for  -40°C to +85°C extended temperature version and -20°C to +60° industrial version
  • Processor speeds from 600 MHz to 1.6 GHz
  • Up to 2 Gbyte DDR2
  • Gigabit Ethernet; five PCI Express lanes and a PCI Bus
  • Six USB 2.0 ports and one USB Client port
  • microSD slot
  • 3 SATA ports and 1 PATA (IDE) port; optional SSD 2-64 GB
  • CAN-bus and four UART ports on mechanically lockable option connector
  • SDVO and LVDS interfaces
  • Power consumption <10W and support for passive cooling

 

With its wide range of I/O and storage options, the Lippert Toucan-TC is a good choice for applications that need a high level of features and connectivity.  Figure 2 shows the module.

 

toucan-tc_s_lightbox.png

Figure 2. The Lippert Toucan-TC offers a rich set of I/O.

 

As a final note, I should point out that one of the key benefits of the Intel Atom processor E6xx is its compatibility with the larger family of Intel® architecture (IA) processors.  If performance requirements grow beyond what the Intel Atom processor E6xx series can deliver, developers can readily move up to another IA processor with more performance.  This is an important consideration for graphics- and video-intensive applications, because it provides a high degree of scalability and future-proofing.

 

Microsoft is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.  E.E.P.D. GmbH and LiPPERT Embedded Computers GmbH are Affiliate members of the Alliance.  (E.E.P.D. GmbH is a division of Trucomp Inc.)

 

Kenton Williston

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

Editor-In-Chief

Embedded Innovator magazine

The embedded systems industry is in a perpetual state of uncertainty as users constantly demand higher performance and all the latest features. A typical embedded product may require multiple hardware and/or software updates over its life to keep up with these demands. Designers worry that a sudden new performance requirement could force a circuit upgrade or even complete redesign. Addressing these concerns, the latest Sandy Bridge microarchitecture from Intel® provides designers a modular and expandable framework that will reduce the system component count and power dissipation while simplifying future updates. Let’s take a look at the inner workings of this new architecture to discover how you may employ it to extend the life, or “future proof”, your next embedded design.

 

Sandy Bridge is the codename for the second generation Intel® Core™ processor family microarchitecture soon to be released to production using the latest 32nm process technology. This new architecture combines a variable number of CPU cores, an integrated graphics processor, Last Level Cache (LLC), and a system agent/memory controller that all communicate using a scalable on-die ring interconnect  system (see figure below). This high speed ring interconnect enables cores and the graphics processor to easily share the cache and memory controller. This ring concept is the key technology behind the Sandy Bridge scalability, allowing Intel® to adjust the number of cores and deliver variants that optimize cost, performance, and power requirements depending on the application.  Embedded designers can select a version that not only covers current requirements but leaves room for future performance enhancements.

Sandy Bridge Block.jpg

Intel® has also developed a new instruction set called Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) for Sandy Bridge. AVX is backward compatible with previous x86 ISA (Instruction Set Architecture) extensions and is optimized for vector and scalar data sets such as those found in embedded signal processing applications. The AVX data path has been increased to 256 bits and is well suited for demanding floating point applications. With this extended processing power, embedded designers can boost performance and possibly replace external dedicated DSPs or FPGAs with AVX code to reduce the component count and lower overall power requirements. With embedded signal processing algorithms programmed in AVX code, future requirements changes may be made with a software modification.

 

The integrated graphics processor allows designers to spice up their embedded products with enhanced graphics and video to greatly improve the user interface and easily react to future updates. The graphics processor features an array of parallel execution units for 3D applications and hardware acceleration for high speed encoding/decoding of high definition video.  All of the CPU cores in Sandy Bridge, including the graphics core, support Intel® Turbo Boost Technology, allowing clock frequencies to scale up temporarily to handle intense workloads.

 

The System Agent for Sandy Bridge includes a dual-channel DDR3 memory controller, the Power Control Unit (PCU), 16 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes, Direct Media Interface (DMI), and the display engine. The System Agent connects to the rest of the Sandy Bridge system via the ring interconnect to provide a high-bandwidth, low-latency interface to DRAM and I/O. The PCU is a programmable microcontroller responsible for power and thermal management throughout the chip. The System Agent provides a flexible I/O configuration allowing embedded designers to easily activate functionality as requirements change.

 

Sandy Bridge also supports an advanced version of Intel®’s vPro technology for security and remote system management. This technology allows designers to activate, reconfigure, and if necessary, deactivate a remote embedded system. Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT), a vital subset of vPro, includes certificate-based security allowing remote access to the embedded system for management and security tasks even when the system is powered off. This technology gives embedded device support personnel a low cost technique to perform remote diagnostics, deliver product training, and manage future software updates.

 

Although there is no guarantee that you will never have to make hardware changes, Sandy Bridge offers embedded designers a highly integrated architecture that promises to boost performance, reduce power needs, and lower recurring system costs. With this flexibility and a little forethought, design teams can hone in on that elusive “future-proof” product. You can find more information about Sandy Bridge in embedded applications from the Troy Willes presentation at IDF. What tips and suggestions can you offer designers to help deal with the inevitable post-delivery requirements changes? Please share your experience and questions via comments with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community. And stand by for more on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture as I continue this series with information about digital signage and gaming applications along with details on embedded system I/O design and flexibility.

 

Warren Webb
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance

Newcomers to Intel® Architecture (IA) processors and chip sets will find highly-integrated support for a plethora of I/O options in every platform. Indeed, no other processor architecture enjoys the same level of I/O integration that’s been driven by a combination of high-volume applications including PCs, workstations, servers, netbooks, notebooks, and embedded applications. The result is support for any I/O or connectivity needed by a design team and availability of that robust I/O in very small system footprints. Let’s have a look at some small single-board computers (SBCs) that illustrate my point.

 

I’ve covered several standard board-level platforms recently including EPIC, Com Express, and CompactPCI PlusIO. But many embedded systems don’t need extensive bus expansion capability or modularity. In some cases a small SBC without the connectors and complex PCB that come with a modular platform can be the lowest cost approach to applications ranging from auto infotainment to portable medical instruments to compact communications gateways.

 

Consider the ECM-QB from Avalue Technology*. The 3.5-in SBC is powered by the Intel® Atom™ E620/640/660/680 series processor along with the Intel® Platform Controller Hub EG20T. The E6XX Series, formerly code named Queens Bay, is the newest member of the Atom family and among the most-highly-integrated platforms in the IA family.

 

The microprocessor chip integrates the processor, a memory controller, and a graphics controller with graphics- and video-acceleration features. The IC can drive an LVDS display using an 80-MHz pixel clock or an SDVO display using a 160-MHz pixel clock. The IC also includes an SPI Flash interface, 14 GPIO lines, and 3 PCIe channels.

The EG20T integrates the remainder of the I/O and networking support. The list is long including:

  • 6 USB 2.0 host ports
  • I USB 2.0 client port
  • I Gigabit Ethernet port
  • I CAN interface
  • ! SATA Gen2 interface
  • 4 UARTS
  • 1 SPI link
  • I I2C link
  • 12 GPIO lines
  • 2 SD/SDIO/MMC card interfaces.

 

Avalue manages to expose the bulk of the available I/O on what is a packed SBC – see photo below. Indeed the design adds an extra Gigabit LAN connection, along with an additional UART over and above the I/O features in the chipset. In total, the SBC includes 3 RS-232 ports, 1 RS-422 port, and 1 RS-485 port. The design also packs in a single PCIe Mini Card slot for limited expansion capability. For example, a design team could add an IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi card or other peripheral.

 

avalue_ECM-QB.jpg

The combination of small size, wide temperature tolerance, and integrated features make the SBC a good match for an application such as infotainment. The integrated graphics/video capability in the processor can handle MPEG4, H.264, WMV, and VC1 video stream decode.

 

A number of other companies also make compact SBCs with robust I/O support. Axiomtek**, for example, has a 3.5-in Capa Board family. The CAPA800 is the newest product in the line. It integrates an Atom N450/D410/D510 processor. I covered that family in a prior post noting that from a system perspective it was the lowest-power IA platform. Note that the new E6XX platform is the next step in that integration/power and will now take that title.

 

The CAPA800 board integrates 8 USB ports and 4 serial ports. There is also a PCIe Mini Card slot. And the board includes LVDS and VGA video interfaces. See the SBC in the photo below.

Axiomtyek_capa800.jpg

Have you developed a multimedia-capable embedded system based around a miniature SBC. What challenges did you face and which I/O options proved most valuable? Please share your experience with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community through comments.

 

Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

*Avalue Technology is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance

** Axiomtek is an Associate member of the Alliance

The new Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series offers a number of features that help developers reduce the cost and size of their products.  One of the most significant features is the open chipset interface.  Instead of the proprietary front side bus (FSB) used in past processors, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series connects to its chipset using one of the four PCI Express* (PCIe) lanes integrated into the processor.  This open connection lets developers attach the processor to a variety of chipsets, including application-specific third-party chipsets, FPGAs, and ASICs.  For applications with limited I/O needs, the Intel Atom processor E6xx series can even be used without a chipset.  In this configuration, the processor’s four PCIe connections can attach to discrete PCIe peripherals such as Ethernet controllers.

 

This ability to customize the chipset can lead to significant cost and space savings because it allows the developer to select or design a chipset optimized for their application.  To illustrate the benefits o a customized chipset, let’s start by examining the pros and cons of the standard chipset.  The Intel Atom processor E6xx series is the first Intel® architecture (IA) processor designed specifically for embedded, and the chipset reflects this targeted design.  As shown in Figure 1, the chipset, which is known as the Intel® Platform Controller Hub EG20T, includes a number of embedded-specific features like CAN and IEEE* 1588 rev2.

 

platform.png

Figure 1. The standard chipset includes a considerable amount of embedded I/O.

 

Looking a bit closer, we can see that the standard chipset offers a solid set of I/O for displays, wired networking, storage, and connectivity.   This I/O is a good match for some applications—digital signage and medical tablets are two examples that come to mind—but it is a poor match for other applications.   As an example of the latter case, consider the needs of in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) applications.  IVI applications typically need things like video inputs and copious GPIO, neither of which are offered in the standard chipset.  Thus, you would need to supplement the chipset with one or more additional I/O chips.   Conversely, the standard chipset includes things like Ethernet which may go unused in an IVI application.  The bottom line here is that you could use the standard chipset in an IVI application, but it would be an inefficient solution.

 

This brings us around to the advantages of an application-specific chipset.  Recognizing the limitations of a one-size-fits-all approach, Intel is working with several members of the Intel® Embedded Alliance to create application-specific chipsets for IVI, media phones, and other applications.  One example of these chipsets is the Oki Semiconductor ML7213 shown in Figure 2.  This chipset is designed specifically for IVI applications, and provides a more efficient solution for products that target that space.

 

chipset.jpg

Figure 2. The ML7213 chipset is optimized for IVI applications.

 

As noted earlier, another option is to skip the chipset altogether and connect peripherals directly to the processor directly via its four PCIe lanes.  For solutions with limited I/O, this approach has obvious appeal, as it has the potential to cut the bill of materials (BOM) down to the bare minimum.  However, there are some complicating factors to deal with before you can use the Intel Atom processor E6xx series as a stand-alone device.  ADI Engineering has an excellent white paper on this topic, in which it points out the following design wrinkles:

 

  • The Intel Atom processor E6xx series lacks an OS boot device interface such as SATA, PATA, SD, USB, or NAND Flash.  Instead, the bootable I/O is located on the Intel Platform Controller Hub EG20T.
  • The system management and power control hardware and firmware is complex and represents an added cost.
  • Although it does not affect the hardware, the need for BIOS also adds to system cost and complexity.  (The BIOS typically carries a per-unit royalty expense.)

 

ADI Engineering chose to deal with the first two complications by implementing a NAND Flash controller and a system controller/power manager in a CPLD.  This approach enables remarkably compact, low-power solutions.  For example, Figure 3 illustrates an 802.11n-to-HDMI streaming media device based on ADI’s hardware.

 

adi.png

Figure 3. The ADI solution can be used to implement an 802.11n-to-HDMI streaming media device.

 

ADI and Intel worked around the BIOS issue by creating a royalty-free boot loader, cutting system costs substantially.  It is important to note that the boot loader is not a full replacement for a BIOS.  Among other things, it cannot be used to load Microsoft* Windows* Embedded Standard 7, nor does it offer the extensive configurability, control, and user interface of commercial BIOS offerings.  However, the boot loader is sufficient to get a low-cost system running with Linux* or a real-time operating system (RTOS).

 

In short, the new Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx series offers a number of options for cost and size optimization.  The ability to choose between the standard chipset, an application-specific chipset, or no chipset at all is a particularly important option.  As the platform matures, I anticipate that we will see even more options in this area.

 

ADI Engineering is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.

 

Kenton Williston

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

Editor-In-Chief

Embedded Innovator magazine

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